Clocking in at over two hours’ runtime, this is an exciting (if somewhat slow to start) story about a man, a horse, a clash of cultures, and a race without equal in venerability, distance, and peril. In 1890, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen)—who’s half Sioux, although he doesn’t look it—is only 25, but already has the reputation of being the greatest endurance-race rider in the world. His mount is Hidalgo, a beautiful brown-and-white overo pinto mustang whom he calls “Little Brother.” When he unwittingly carries the dispatch that results in the massacre of unoffensive Sioux at Wounded Knee, he flees to the East—and a bottle—to escape his horror and guilt. Months later, having joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s (J. K. Simmons) Wild West, he’s approached by one Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle), a representative of a Bedouin sheik who is “insulted” at Frank’s title. The Bedouins, it seems, have for several centuries been holding an annual endurance race of their own—3000 miles from Aden to Damascus, across a burning desert called the Ocean of Fire. Only if Frank can compete in this contest, and win, says Aziz, will he legitimately be able to call himself “the greatest.” Frank isn’t interested at first, but when he learns that the Army is rounding up Sioux horses with intent to slaughter them—but will surrender them to anyone able to pay an inflated price—and that the winner of the race will walk away with $100,000 in American money, he changes his mind, especially after Annie Oakley (Elizabeth Berridge) spearheads a fund drive among the performers that provides him with the entry fee.
Reaching Aden, Frank meets Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), who turns out to be fascinated by the Wild West (we once find him deeply engrossed in a dime novel), and is provided with a staff of sorts—an old goatherder named Yusef (Harsh Nayyar) and a black slave boy (Franky Mwangi). He finds, too, that he’s not the only European who’s entered the race, though he’s the only one who’ll be riding in it: Englishwoman Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard) has entered her purebred Arabian mare, hoping to win permission to breed the animal to Riyadh’s best stud, also an entrant. In the gruelling days that follow, Frank will face a killer dust storm (impressive special effects by George Lucas’s ILM), a plague of locusts that wipes out “any forage up ahead,” a bandit raider (Adoni Maropis) from whom he must help rescue Riyadh’s daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), quicksands, and the underhanded maneuverings of Lady Anne. In the end he finds his true strength and identity and proves what he and Hidalgo are made of.
Hidalgo himself is as much the star of the movie as Mortensen—a beautiful horse (almost certainly *not* a purebred mustang) and both clever and splendidly trained. Though Frank finds much in the Bedouin culture that he can neither understand nor approve—their treatment of their women, their fixation on the purity of their horses’ blood—he sees too that in some ways they are very much like the Sioux, and he and Riyadh forge a real friendship. Sometimes violent but always exciting and full of desert pageantry, this is one of my favorite movies.